It’s hard being raised a vegetarian. Or is it? Rachel Walker knows the answer.
I’M A PINT-sized soon to be five-year-old Princess Ninja and I’m ready to take over the world. Though If I do bump into you along my journey of global domination, there’s a high chance my sensitive self will apologise profusely and offer you a lion’s share of my secret weapon: lollies from the corner dairy in an assortment of rainbow colours, and all for under 50 cents.
The other day the older boy from the red brick house next door spent $3 on gummy worms and all of us neighbourhood kids thought he was a king. His white paper bag was threatening to burst at any given moment. Jealousy consumes me, and I make a mental note to ask Mum for more spare change next time.
Now it’s my first day in the big kids’ world of primary school, and the thing I’m most excited about is getting a notebook. By the end of the day I’ve politely raised my hand and asked the teacher when we get them. She laughs at me and tells me not for another four years, but in the meantime we get to write exciting stories about our weekend. I write an assortment of the alphabet.
At school I’m meant to wear glasses. They take up half my face and make my classmates ask what is wrong with me, like I’m wearing a giant bandage around my forehead or have grown a second nose. I’ve practiced my spiel and tell all about the mythical world behind glass, but they don’t really seem to take it in. Sam is the only other kid sporting them, and he’s the king of both the spelling and reading groups. I soon learn to “lose” them for the foreseeable future. Sam keeps his throne.
Now it’s lunchtime, and I’m bribing a school friend to give me her sandwiches: thick slabs of white bread with luncheon slices and enough butter to drown in. It’s not that I’ve become aware that I never seem to have them in my lunchbox, or wish that I did, but rather that I’m intrigued. They’re new and new seems so very exciting to my young taste buds. We come to an arrangement that sees us through the rest of the year. Mum is none the wiser.
Back at home sitting, at the neighbouring fence line to eat dinner with my partner in crime, she points out the brown meaty looking intruders on my plate with a look of disgust, and asks me what they are. After hassling Mum I find out that they’re vegetarian something or other by some guy called ‘Sanitarium’. Maybe not everyone eats like us after all.
Fast-forward five years and I’m in new surroundings, except these ones look remotely different. For starters my “neighbours” are of the milk and wool variety, and it’s not long before I’ve got my hands full being a surrogate mother to a vivacious lamb called Sunshine. She singlehandedly changes my perception on farm animals with her head butting soccer skills and challenges for running races. I’m not surprised when at my new school’s pet day she scores us a modest yellow rosette. Afterwards, a new friend’s mother makes a derogatory comment about my family being vegetarian. I am humiliated. I’m already the shortest kid in my year, but this really makes me shrink.
“Are you vegetarian?” the kids ask around me incredulously.
I don’t want to be the weird kid. I don’t want to be the weird kid. I don’t want to be the weird kid.
Another five years later and we’re back in the city where it all began, though things are much different this time around. Not only have I endured a crazy growth spurt, but I am now eating meat. Sleepovers with friends always involve takeaways, and the word ‘vegetables’ – let alone the word vegetarian – doesn’t seem to exist in any of our vocabularies, or on our plates.
It’s not long before sleepovers turn into sleepless nights over boys with facial fuzz who have a penchant for car windows acting as mirror checks. Add to that their sweet helium high voices and it’s all very Grease Lightning meets Stuart Little. One of the boys I date has a vegetarian family too. I find it all very exciting and their food is nearly as delicious as the home-cooked meals I once indulged in. I have a monster-sized bowl of guilt for dessert.
In these teenage years I spend a lot of time trying to fit into different social crowds. Eventually I start to feel like an old art canvas that had been layered over so many times that I forget what the original looks like. I set out to find it, and along the way realise that eating my tofu and three veg is at the very core of it.
Next I find myself staring blankly at adulthood’s yellow brick road, wondering what lies ahead. My first answer comes somewhat by luck when I get a job working in a foodie lover’s heaven. I begin to explore food that I had no idea even existed away from the typical supermarket aisles.
On hearing that a workmate is vegetarian, I whisper to her that I am also. It’s like saying the password for a top secret underground club, and this time I’m invited in. It’s one of the first times I’ve purposely dropped the ‘v’ bomb out loud, and it feels liberating. Aside from drooling over the regular influx of chef de cuisines, we now also salivate over our lunchtime salads.
Today, I’m no longer a vegetarian but rather a vegan. Initially the changeover was solely for health issues, but I’m really starting to see and feel that this is the way my body would like to live permanently. A week ago my gastroenterologist said that I had had a break-through, and I know the removal of the dairy has played a big part in that. Afterwards, I left my car in the hospital parking lot and just floated home on a high. I’ve come to realise just how hard my body works to get rid of dairy in my system. No one enjoys being overworked, so why should my poor body have to suffer as well? After listening and reading and listening some more, the benefits of my health are joined by my awareness of ethical and spiritual beliefs. It’s hasta la vista leche, dairy can stay where it belongs.
Funnily enough, I actually set out to write this piece with the dominating thought in my mind that it was hard, really hard to be a vegetarian kid, and that when I raise my own I didn’t think that I would do it the same way. But after taking a leisurely stroll down memory lane, I’ve come to a somewhat different conclusion that has even surprised me.
Being a vegetarian child was not hard. But being a child in general in a world that is constantly broadcasting their opinions on one’s lifestyle and self-beliefs out of a megaphone was, and still is. Sure, I didn’t tell many, if any, friends and acquaintances over the years that I was in fact living a life without meat (and now sans dairy) consumption until I had entered into adulthood and dropped my faux leather battle gear. But even if I had, not much would have changed about who I was and who I wanted to be – a professional tree climber.
Is it cruel to force your children to eat tofu instead of tandoori chicken, or lentils instead of lamb when they’re not yet old enough to determine their own beliefs, or do we leave it up to society to mould them to be what we hope is a somewhat respectful human being? I’m not yet a parent, but in relation to my (and Channing Tatum’s) future offspring, I want them to be brought up in this world knowing that they are being given the very best that I know. And they might just even have a couple of pet lambs too. RACHEL WALKER